Approximately seven in ten Americans report shooting a gun at some point in their lives (Pew Research Center, 2017). Shooting as a category encompasses hobbies such as hunting and target practice, as well as career shooting in military service or law enforcement. There are critical safety precautions that must be taken with gun use to preserve the lives of the shooter and anyone in the vicinity of the gun.
Next to the danger to life that guns can pose, hearing protection might seem like a minimal concern. But “shooter’s ear,” or the specific type of noise-induced hearing loss caused by gun use, can be a significant contributor to hearing loss that will affect your day-to-day communication.
This article will review shooter’s ear: its causes, effects, and how to prevent it from starting or becoming worse.
What is shooter’s ear?
The inner ear, known as the cochlea, is a fluid-filled organ with thousands of tiny hair cells that move in response to incoming sound and send a message to the auditory centers in the brain to hear and process incoming signals. Hearing loss is complex and caused by a variety of factors, including age, genetics, and environmental exposure.
Most often, the first sign of hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech in the presence of background noise or in situations where the signal is degraded like on a phone call. That said, noise-induced hearing loss does have a characteristic pattern on a diagnostic audiogram, so often, an audiologist can see when noise exposure is a prominent cause of hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss is also often accompanied by tinnitus, which is usually a ringing or buzzing sound but can be any noise heard by an individual without an external source in the environment. Shooter’s ear is the specific type of noise-induced hearing loss caused by shooting a gun. Shooter’s ear specifically presents as an asymmetrical hearing loss, with the ear opposite the handedness of the user more affected. That is, a right-handed shooter will likely have greater hearing loss on the left side due to the position of the gun in relation to the head.
Can my hearing be recovered after suffering shooter’s ear-induced hearing loss?
A loud sound, whether it is sustained or a sudden impulse sound, such as a gunshot, can cause temporary or permanent damage to the cells of the inner ear. If you have ever attended a concert and noticed on the ride home that your ears are ringing and you are having slight difficulty hearing, this is known as a temporary threshold shift. Usually, your hearing has returned to normal, and the tinnitus has gone away by the next morning. But if you were to attend loud concerts every night without hearing protection, this temporary shift would become permanent over time.
A concert is an example of sustained loud noise, whereas the use of a gun presents an extremely loud (from 140 dB to as high as 175 dB) impulse sound that is likely past the pain threshold for many individuals. It is also loud enough that it will most likely cause permanent damage to the cochlea. Repeated exposure to gunshots without the use of hearing protection can degrade hearing quite quickly. If you notice tinnitus, pain, or muffled sound immediately following a shot, this is a sign that you are experiencing shooter’s ear and are in need of hearing protection.
How can I protect my hearing while shooting?
There are a lot of hearing protection devices on the market designed for different purposes, many of which are for shooting activities. These devices publish their noise reduction rating (NRR), which can be helpful for ensuring that you are getting adequate hearing protection while shooting. You may need to double your devices, such as using foam insert earplugs in addition to an over-the-ear muff-style device.
Tetra Hearing makes products that are specific for hunters, designed to amplify sounds needed to localize animals but protect the ears from gunshot noise and eventual shooter’s ear. They have custom products, which would require an earmold impression, as well as universal behind-the-ear styles, and the devices are eligible to be paid for from your health savings account (HSA) if you participate in such a program.
If you are target shooting and don’t require the sound awareness or filtering technology, the Decibel Defense Professional Safety Earmuffs are an affordable option (around $25). They have one of the highest NRR offerings available at 37 dB and are reportedly quite comfortable to wear. These are designed only to block out sound around you, so take extra measures to remain aware of your surroundings while holding a loaded gun.
Individuals in the military or law enforcement who need to have some sound awareness but not the extreme soft sounds of the wilderness might seek something like the Howard Leight Impact Pro Electronic Earmuff. This pair offers an NRR of 30 dB and can amplify ambient sounds to a safe level while actively blocking loud impulse sounds. This device retails for closer to $130.
It is important to note that hearing aids are not appropriate for hearing protection for shooting. While hearing aids do have active compression technology to protect your ears from impulse sounds, this is designed more for dog barking and door slamming sounds that would be uncomfortable if amplified by hearing aids, but not overtly damaging. You should not wear your hearing aids while shooting.
How can I prevent shooter’s ear?
Shooter’s ear is entirely preventable if you use appropriate protection every single time you are using a gun. Ideally, you will limit your exposure to these noises, and exceedingly loud noise in general, as much as possible. Depending on the circumstances of your gun use, you might consider adjusting your shooting environment, engaging in group shooting, avoiding multiple shots in succession, and using gun silencers.
After shooting, if the sound is muffled or imbalanced between ears, you are experiencing tinnitus, or you have any ear pain, these are all indications that your hearing protection is not sufficient. You may need to check to ensure you are using it properly and consider doubling your devices and/or pursuing another option with a higher NRR. If you have a hearing test and you are displaying shooter’s ear, it is not a lost cause. Using adequate hearing protection now can prevent your hearing loss from becoming worse.
Understanding the mechanism of noise-induced hearing loss and shooter’s ear, specifically, is important for anyone who engages with gun use either for their career or recreationally. Your auditory system is vulnerable to permanent damage when exposed to the extremely loud impulse sounds created by guns of all types.
Fortunately, there is a wide range of innovative devices on the market that allow people to pursue shooting activities safely to protect and preserve their hearing. Your auditory system is often the body’s first cue to react in situations, and therefore it is critical for many people who engage in shooting-related activities to preserve their hearing.
Shooter’s ear is preventable from the outset, and it is possible to protect the hearing you do have if shooter’s ear has already started to show up on your audiogram. If you suspect you may be experiencing shooter’s ear, you should consult an audiologist for a diagnostic hearing test. Be sure to check out the other articles on our page for additional suggestions for hearing protection suited for a wide range of hobbies and activities.
Erin Edwards received her Doctor of Audiology degree from Towson University in 2015 and her Ph.D. in Education and Leadership from Pacific University in 2022. She has worked with patients of all ages in a variety of settings and has a specific interest in cochlear implants, the relationship of hearing loss and dementia, and interdisciplinary healthcare.